diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Isle of Man (North)

Point of Ayre
The northern coastline of the Isle of Man is a low sand-duney place, curving round to a shingly tip at Point of Ayre. This remote spot is the closest the island gets to the British mainland, just 16 miles from Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland, and is also the location of the island's oldest lighthouse. This was designed and built by Robert Louis Stevenson's grandfather almost 200 years ago, and the signal is doubled up by a shorter metal "winkie" on the beach. The adjacent twin foghorn is a dramatic feature, ideal for an album cover design I'd say, but was decommissioned in 2005 thanks to the march of technology. A proper get-away-from-it-all spot (but mind your step amongst the pebbles so as not to disturb the nesting arctic terns). [2 photos] [map]

The second largest town on the island is Ramsey, with a well-protected harbour and a lacklustre seafront overlooked by ill-advised apartments. The main shopping street runs from an independent ironmongers to a proper family drapery called Looneys via an actual Costa Coffee (their caffeinated tentacles get everywhere). It didn't seem the sort of place to stop for long... [3 photos] [map]

...whereas this village, on a sticky-out headland to the east, was charming. A group of cottages hugs a crossroads by an ancient church, in whose graveyard are some of the oldest Celtic crosses on the island. To find the lighthouse head out the back gate and up the lane, and there it is at the foot of the cliffs. More impressive is the view inland across the Sheading of Garff, which ought to be a Game of Thrones dominion, with rolling fields rising towards not-so distant mountains. Sunday was Maughold's Parish Day, reluctantly postponed from a very rainy Saturday. Villagers were massing on the festooned field above the car park, while a bank of wooden chairs had been lined up on the tiny village green ready for the crowning of the Parish Queen, her throne a couple of rugs and some triskelion banners draped over a low stone memorial. [5 photos] [map]

The one Manx tourist attraction everybody knows is the Laxey Wheel, which is the world's largest working waterwheel, and proper massive. Its size is due to a geological quirk - there is no coal on the Isle of Man, so when Victorian technology on the mainland turned to steam the locals here were forced to maximise their water power instead. The wheel's 72 feet high, six feet wide, and has three feet on the front (this a whopping great triskelion visible far down the valley). Water from the stream below is forced up the tower under pressure and dribbles over into the slatted buckets on the circumference causing the wheel to spin at three revs per minute. Motion is transferred to a lateral crank which pushes an incredibly long rod back and forth. This sits on casters along what looks like a Roman aqueduct, but was in fact a means of powering the drainage pumps in the zinc mine 400 yards up the valley. The Great Laxey Mine was once the richest metal mine in the British Isles and employed 600 men, with their wives doing more menial washing work lower down in the town.

As well as being desperately photogenic, the wheel's other attraction is the opportunity to ascend. A first climb takes you above the dripping base for a close-up of that three-legged logo, then a second brings you to axle level. Only Manx National Heritage Trust staff can step across the barriers to check the mechanics, and some fairly hefty restoration work is planned before next spring which should keep them busy. As for the next set of steps, spiralling around the outside of the water tower, I tried to force myself to climb them but a wobbly bit at the back of my brain said no. "Come on, you're only here once," I told myself, but when the prize for ascent was to stand on an exposed wooden platform with the wheel whirling beneath, I jellied out. Sheepishly I waited for BestMate to pop up and pop down, but even he returned with vertigo on his mind, so I felt less bad about missing out. Instead there were the old mineworkings at the top of the glen to investigate, these eventually higher than the top of the wheel had been, but at least on solid ground. Much to see, and rightly a tourist treat. [9 photos] [map]

Snaefell Mountain Railway
Forget hiking, the most popular way to reach the top of the Isle of Man's highest mountain is by train. The Snaefell Mountain Railway starts from Laxey station and wiggles its way up to the summit along ratcheted rails. Best pick a decent day for it, else you'll get to the top and see nothing but the cafe. The service is run using six wooden-bodied electric railcars, five of which are the originals from 1895 and were built in Birkenhead. Take a window seat if you can - the right-hand side's better for the first half up the valley, and the left-hand side's better for the spiral round the mountaintop. Some of the windows slide open, which is more useful on some days than others, but don't lean out else your camera, arm or head might be thwacked by one of the central posts supporting the overhead wires. Halfway up the five mile ascent the tracks cross the TT Course at Bungalow station, watched over by a giant goat, then continue up ever more exposed slopes to reach the top.

Trains pull up outside the Summit Hotel, 2096 feet up, with the option of exploring the proper peak or hiding inside where it smells of chips. Best I think to climb the ramp to the triangulation point, from which an almost 360° panorama can be seen, blocked only by two whopping mobile phone masts. A mixture of lesser mountains, glens and coastal plain should be visible, and on a really good day all the home nations on the horizon. And then the railcar will take you back down in half an hour flat, making this mountaineering for the lazy, but none the less exhilarating for that. [11 photos] [map]

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